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Protesters stand in front of President Garnett Stokes' house on campus at a Grad Union Rally held in January 2021.

UNM grad workers' right to unionize approved

Public Employee Labor Relations Board strikes previous recommendation

After the fight to unionize has been ongoing for over a year, the United Graduate Workers of the University of New Mexico received a win as graduate students were labeled as public and regular employees by the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) on Aug. 17. This label, as specified by the Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA), gives the graduate workers the right to form a union. The board will meet again in the future to define what the workers’ bargaining units will be.

The board unanimously sided with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), the larger union that the United Grad Workers is apart of; this move revoked the recommended decision that PELRB executive director and hearing officer Thomas Griego made in June that grad workers were not public or regular employees, and therefore couldn’t unionize.

The board’s new decision states that public employees with definitive contracts are “guaranteed collective bargaining rights.” In addition, it states that PEBA specifically includes work funded by grants or third-party sources. Both of these cases were arguments that UNM had cited in the first board hearing on Aug. 3 on why grad workers should not be afforded these protections.

The decision to label the grad workers as public and regular employees comes after a wave of graduate worker unionization efforts across the country. At UNM, many members anticipated the decision going the other way and Samantha Cooney, a member of the coordinating committee for the Union, said everyone felt “extreme bliss” once they heard the news.

Moving forward, Griego said that an “appropriateness of the bargaining unit” hearing will be held to define the exact terms of the Union’s bargaining units. Before the hearing, Griego will be presented with a case analysis, and he will then deliver a recommended decision on how the bargaining units should work.

At the hearing, both the grad union and University will be allowed to present their own cases in front of the board, who will vote on Griego’s recommendation afterwards. That decision can again be appealed by a disagreeing party, which would restart the hearing process. According to Griego, the timeline for his recommendation and the hearing process is still being figured out.

Currently, Kelsey Treviño, a chief steward for the Union, said the three demands the Union is pushing for are better wages, benefits and working conditions. The Union also has a petition addressed to University administration that calls for recognition by the University, and outlines these demands more thoroughly. 

Cooney said the Union hopes that the process will move forward quickly, and that the University will not try to fight bargaining with them any longer.

“We do not want to see another delay using taxpayer dollars and expensive lawyers,” Cooney said. “We want you and them to understand that the labor board's decision is correct, and it is what we knew was correct all along.”

James Holloway, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, said that “graduate assistantships” are incredibly important to the operations of the University, and that the provost office is looking forward to seeing the state labor board’s written decision “concerning the status of graduate students receiving financial support through these assistantships.”

”We learned (on Aug. 17) that the State Labor Board overruled its director's earlier ruling that graduate student workers were ineligible to form a union under New Mexico Public Employees Bargaining Act,” Holloway wrote to the Daily Lobo. “We regard graduate students as a critical set of learners at UNM. UNM’s graduate programs, and our graduate student learners and researchers, contribute greatly to the University and are also crucial to the development of the advanced workforce within New Mexico.”

A current goal for the Union is to get new grad workers who haven’t filled out their bargaining survey yet to do so, according to Treviño; the Union has already collected initial responses through the survey that detail what grievances the members have had or are currently facing. The overall goal of the survey is to collect data so the Union can definitively decide what they will collectively bargain for.

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Despite the long processes the Union has been going through, Cooney said the formal decision by PELRB will protect the rights of grad workers to unionize across the state for years to come.

“This does solidify our rights, and it guarantees that not only UNM graduate workers are covered under PEBA but grad workers throughout New Mexico public universities are covered under PEBA,” Cooney said.

Treviño said a lot of members who have been fighting for this union will not reap the benefits, but that knowing it will help these future grad workers is why they continue to fight.

“We really want to help our people; we want to take care of our people, and it doesn't stop us even though we may not benefit personally,” Treviño said.

On Sept. 3, the Union will hold a “Rally for Recognition,” which Cooney and Treviño both said will continue to put pressure on the University to bargain with them as soon as possible. 

Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @madelinepukite

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